‘Sir, You Are Having a Heart Attack’

What a great gift was given to so many saints who knew the date of their death in advance

The ceiling of the Church of All Saints in Minsk, Belarus, features frescoes of various saints
The ceiling of the Church of All Saints in Minsk, Belarus, features frescoes of various saints (photo: Shutterstock)

All day long it had been nagging at me — a small, even tiny, pain in my chest. It felt like someone was poking me with the tip of a pencil eraser to the left of my sternum. But the strange thing was that it just came and went, with no pattern. It would go away for a couple of hours (which is why I worked the entire day with it), then come back up to 10 times in one minute. “Weird,” I thought.

When I got home that Friday night this past January, I finally called a friend of mine who is a doctor to get his opinion. Though he is a gastroenterologist, I figured he would at least be able to diagnose over the phone if it was some minor G/I upset.

No luck. “I don’t do over-the-phone-diagnoses,” he told me, “plus I’m not a cardiologist.” And then I heard exactly what I did not want to hear: “You might as well go to the emergency room now and get it checked out — it’s only 8:30 [at night] and with any luck you’ll be out of there early.”

I almost didn’t go to the ER, but then I did. Grudgingly. Very grudgingly. 

Once there I uttered the magic words (if you ever want to cut to the front of the line at a crowded ER) — “I’m having chest pains” — and before I could add “but it’s really not bad and very inconsistent,” I was hooked up to an EKG. Then immediately shown to a room while three nurses began (1) drawing blood in one arm and (2) putting a line into another and (3) asking me all kinds of questions before finishing with, “The doctor will be right in.” 

“Famous last words,” I thought. “I’ll be here in this bed for hours before I see a doctor.” But in a refreshing change of pace, almost immediately a physician pulled back the curtain, shut it and said quickly and as seriously as anyone has ever said anything to me: “Mr. Di Camillo, you are having a heart attack.”

Not content with dropping one bombshell, the good doctor immediately followed up with, “We are having you transported immediately by ambulance to a cardiac care hospital in South Buffalo. They are ready for you now.”

Up to this point in my life, I’d thought the worst words I’d heard regarding my health were, “Mr. Di Camillo, you have cancer,” on March 20, 2003. But with cancer — even in the worst case — there’s time to absorb the news, to get a second (and third) opinion — to go over the surgery, the radiation, the endless testing, the chemo (which, mercifully, I was spared), and the interminable follow-up.

Not so with a heart attack. The next thing I knew I was strapped into the back of an ambulance that was speeding along in a snowstorm with two paramedics — one of whom drove, while the other acted bored.

Naturally, I called my wife and children, and my parents — mainly to say goodbye since I figured, “So: this is how it ends for me: in the back of an ambulance en route from one hospital to another.”

I also called my friend, the aforementioned doctor, who basically talked me off the ledge for the remainder of the 40-minute drive.

Upon arrival at Buffalo Mercy Hospital I was taken into an OR for an emergency angiogram. The most surreal part of this was that I was awake for all of it — the imaging, the wire being routed up my wrist, the shaving of my leg in case they needed to go that route. 

There must have been a dozen medical personnel in there working like some finely choreographed ballet, barking back numbers and orders and questions:

“Mr. Di Camillo, what do you do?” one asked. When I said, “I’m a poet” I think they thought I was joking.

They definitely thought I was joking when I saw a crucifix above the operating room door and said, “Can someone please take that crucifix off the wall …”

Immediately one nurse barked back: “Why?”

“So I can kiss it before I die?”

“Mr. Di Camillo, that crucifix hasn’t moved since 1965.”

So I decided to pray. But the staff was having none of that.

“Mr. Di Camillo, please be quiet. And try not to move.”

Both of these were difficult to accomplish. They said they’d given me a sedative, but if they did, it wasn’t working. So I just stared at that crucifix and said short prayers in my head: “Jesus, I trust in you,” “Mary, my mother, my confidence,” and especially, “Jesus, I surrender myself to you; take care of everything.”

Little by little the pace slowed, and fewer and fewer medical personnel were in the OR until it was just a couple of nurses and the cardiologist who had performed the angiogram. He came up close to me and said probably the most unexpected thing I could have conjured, or prayed for:

“Your heart and arteries are all clear. There’s no blockage, no plaque. Your heart is healthy.”

Fearing that I had succumbed to the sedative and was hallucinating, I said “But what about the heart attack?”

“There was no heart attack,” the doctor laconically said.

“But the ER doctor said I was having a heart attack,” I said.

“Yes, well, he was ‘right’ in that 70% of EKGs that read that way are indeed heart attacks. But you just had an odd reading on your EKG. You do have some very slight inflammation of the outside lining of the heart, and that can throw off an EKG — and would explain your pain — but there was no heart attack. Still, we’re going to put you in cardiac ICU for a while and keep you overnight.”

And that was what happened. I was discharged the next day and went home, then back to work after I’d seen my own doctor.

But the point of this story is, to me, about the saints. I kept thinking, how often do we read in Butler’s Lives of the Saints or The Martyrology or The Golden Legend of a saint knowing exactly when they were going to die? I’d always glossed over this since it seemed almost like an add-on to every saint’s life.

However, having gone into an ER for what I thought was nothing, then being told I was in the midst of a heart attack, and finally sent home with a good and healthy heart, I keep coming back to all those saints who were blessed to know not just that their end was imminent, but the precise day and date they would depart this vale of tears: St. Caspar del Bufalo, St. Anthony the Abbot, St. John the Almsgiver, St. Scholastica, St. John Joseph of the Cross, St. Frances of Rome. And then, of course, there are the martyrs whose day of execution was set well in advance: St. Polycarp, St. Ignatius of Antioch, St. Henry Morse, St. John de Britto, Sts. Perpetua and Felicity, St. Paul Miki and Companions, St. Anne Line, St. John Ogilvie, St. Nicholas Owen — the list of the blessed forewarned of their death is almost endless. 

What a great gift was given these many saints! May they pray for us when our time, expected or not, comes.

Federal Bureau of Investigation Director Christopher Wray testifies Tuesday before the Senate Judiciary Committee at the Hart Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C.

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